Chinese pressure was blamed Thursday for a stunning diplomatic U-turn by Southeast Asian Nations that saw them retract a statement sounding alarm over Beijing’s island building in the South China Sea.
The chaotic events at the end of a meeting of foreign ministers from China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Tuesday have led to allegations of bullying by Beijing.
The document, released by ASEAN member Malaysia and described as a joint statement from the bloc, warned developments in the hotly contested South China Sea could “undermine peace, security and stability”.
The statement specified “land reclamation” as a source of tension, a clear reference to China’s massive island building activities where it is trying to cement a claim to almost the whole sea.
But just hours later, Malaysia said the grouping was retracting the statement for “urgent amendments”, but offered no reason. Various participants have since given conflicting explanations over what happened.
An ASEAN diplomat who was present at the meeting in the Chinese city of Kunming told AFP that China had put the screws on some Southeast Asian nations to get them to withdraw their support.
“The usual factor, pressure from China,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, when asked why unity crumbled.
“I suspect the two countries that opposed the statement were Cambodia and Laos.”
Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper also reported on Thursday that the joint statement was “scuttled by the Chinese, who lobbied its friends in the grouping to block” it.
“Malaysia releasing it was a manifestation of the extreme frustration of the original five ASEAN members plus Vietnam at the particularly crude and arrogant behaviour of the Chinese,” the Straits Times reported an ASEAN official as saying.
The Philippines also said Thursday that there had originally been unanimous support within ASEAN for the strongly worded statement.
“By the time the meeting ended, there was an agreement among ASEAN foreign ministers. They agreed on the text of the ASEAN statement and they agreed it would be released,” Philippine foreign affairs spokesman Charles Jose told reporters in Manila.
Jose said the statement was then retracted after the meeting had ended and most foreign ministers, including the Philippines’ Jose Rene Almendras, had left the venue to start returning home.
Jose would not be drawn on whether Chinese lobbying was to blame, but insisted Malaysia’s initial release had not been in error.
Asked why Malaysia gave the statement to the media, Jose said: “That was the point where there was consensus among ASEAN to have that statement. So by the time it was released, there was agreement.”
Indonesia said on Wednesday the release — titled “Media statement by the ASEAN foreign ministers” — was issued by mistake, and that it was only meant to be a “media guideline”.
China has responded to the controversy by insisting there had not been unanimous support for the original statement
“It is clear that if ASEAN wants to issue an official statement, such statement will be based on consensus,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said on Wednesday.
The events have been widely seen as another example of ASEAN’s inability to present a united front toward China as it dramatically expands its presence in the waterway.
China claims nearly all of the sea — home to some of the world’s most important shipping routes and of vast military importance.
ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan, have competing claims to parts of the sea.
While the Philippines and Vietnam have been particularly critical, Laos and Cambodia have been generally regarded as preferring to side with their giant neighbour and benefactor.
In 2012, ASEAN foreign ministers failed to release a joint statement for the first time at the end of their annual gathering, with the Philippines blaming event host Cambodia for blocking criticism of China.
Laos this year has the rotating presidency of ASEAN, and will host a series of meetings over the coming months in which the South China Sea will inevitably be a hot talking point.